A fond farewell to the water community

It was June 25, 2012 – my first day on the job at the Iowa Water Center. Rick was in Canada on a fishing trip, so I went to get lunch on my own. I ran to an old standby, Hy-Vee Chinese, and when I got to the fortune cookie, what did I see?

You will be successful in your work.

I kept that fortune taped to my desk at work from that very first day up until now, my last day at the Iowa Water Center. Looking at the eight years in-between, I think we can safely say that my fortune proved true, thanks to the patience, energy, and collaboration of the hundreds of brilliant colleagues I’ve met since that first day.

On August 10, I will begin a new chapter in my career as the associate director of operations for the National Institute of Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education(NIAMRRE). Similar to the Iowa Water Center, NIAMRRE is administered by Iowa State University’s Office of the Vice President for Research and seeks to connect researchers, educators, and practitioners to solve one of society’s most pressing issues. Also similar is the systems approach taken by both institutes: One Water, where we recognize that all water is connected and has value, and One Health, where we recognize that human health, animal health, and environmental health are inseparable and sectors must work together to advance science and practice.

Anyone who has met me knows that I’m not a person of few words, but I’ll try to succinctly capture our success together over the last eight years:

  • In 2012, we managed $92,335 in sponsored funds each year; today, we administer over $1.75M in sponsored funds for multi- and interdisciplinary research, outreach, and education projects.
  • We grew our outreach from a static website to a comprehensive multimedia strategy with thousands of engagements each month.
  • We supported nearly 50 faculty and 60 graduate and undergraduate students through our competitive grants program, including directly funding original projects designed by graduate students through the addition of our graduate student supplemental grant program.
  • We grew the Iowa Water Conference in every single metric: attendance, exhibitors, posters, workshops, planning committee members. But more importantly, the conference became the embodiment of the vast amount of hard work and passion the water community expends each year. It is more than a conference. It is a celebration.

What these statistics don’t capture is the breadth of new projects and initiatives to which we’ve led or contributed, and, most importantly, the friends we’ve made along the way. When we launch our new website later this month, I hope you’ll see your role in achieving our vision of a robust and connected water science community.

While leaving my water family is bittersweet, I am absolutely confident that the foundation we’ve laid together will continue to advance water science to meet Iowa’s water resource needs. I won’t be far, and I look forward to watching the Iowa Water Center and the Iowa water community flourish.

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Melissa Miller served as the associate director of the Iowa Water Center from 2016-2020 following her tenure as program coordinator from 2012-2016. She holds a BS in Kinesiology with an emphasis in Community and Public Health and MS degree in Community Development with an emphasis in Natural Resource Management, both from Iowa State University.

The #IowaWater2020 Welcome Speech That Will Never Be Given

Post written by Melissa Miller, Associate Director for the Iowa Water Center

Today, at 10 a.m., I was supposed to greet 500+ of my closest friends and colleagues and say (with gusto), “Welcome to the 2020 Iowa Water Conference!”

If you’ve been our conference (or any conference, really), you know how that speech goes.

I would have thanked the planning committee for their tireless efforts in shaping the very best conference agenda for this year, a program that resonated with the theme “Bringing our water vision into focus.”

I would have thanked the sponsors and exhibitors for their generous support year after year.

I would have thanked you for coming and urged you to attend sessions outside of your comfort zone.

I would have introduced you to our amazing new conference logo and told you everything it stands for.

But, instead, at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, April 8, 2020, I’m making a mid-morning snack for my elementary-aged daughters before we go on a walk to the “creek” (okay, it’s a drainage ditch). I haven’t been to Ames in almost a month, and I don’t know when I’ll go again.


When we announced the cancellation, we had many people reach out to us and express their condolences for the months of lost work and preparation. This missed opportunity to connect and grow side by side is suddenly a common tragedy of this strange new era. We lament with those who planned to present, with the students who planned to compete in the poster contest, for the morning sticky buns we won’t get to eat (I know at least a couple of you were already lamenting the loss of “Scheman Lasagna” from years past, for some reason).

But remember: the Iowa Water Conference is just two days. The work that went into it is not lost. We still had a diverse mix of organizations collaborating to conduct peer reviews of the latest water work in Iowa. We still had hours of introspection and discussion to identify the most pressing topics in water resource management in Iowa. We still built new relationships and cultivated old ones with Iowa’s hardworking water professionals and scientists. Building the Iowa Water Conference takes the entire year – for all of us. The two days is just the celebration.


In my welcome speech, there is one more thing I would have done this year. I would have challenged every single one of you to consider two questions as you listened to each presentation:

Who cares?

So what?

(Shout out to Molly Hanson, co-founder of Women for Water and conservation and community outreach specialist for RDG Planning & Design. Molly came up with this idea after we discussed my theory on cultivating and stewarding a community of “Water People.”)

This challenge still applies to the work you do, day in and day out. Ask yourself, who cares, and so what? Answering those questions both affirms the importance of the role you play and brings you closer to understanding how to reach the communities in which you’re working.

My final comment of the Welcome Speech That Will Never Be Given: we can and should still work to build a shared vision for Iowa’s water future. What do YOU want for Iowa’s future? Compare your answers with others’ answers. Where are we the same? Where and why are we different? What are our overarching goals that benefit the most people in an equitable and just way? What can you do in your work to move us toward those goals? And, perhaps most importantly, what will it look like when we get there?

Have an answer to any of these questions? Join in the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #IowaWater2020. Jump in with real-time dialogue in our Water Scholars Book Club on Facebook. Send us an email.

Talk to you soon.

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Melissa Miller is the associate director of the Iowa Water Center. She holds a BS in Kinesiology with an emphasis in Community and Public Health and MS degree in Community Development with an emphasis in Natural Resource Management, both from Iowa State University.

A Message from the Iowa Water Center

There’s not much we can say to fully capture the whirlwind of the last few weeks and what’s to come as we prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Iowa Water Center staff is fortunate in that we can work remotely, continuing to advance water science to meet Iowa’s water resource needs. We applaud those who are doing their part to practice social distancing and are eternally grateful to those providing essential services outside the comfort and safety of their homes.

We will greatly miss hosting the Iowa Water Conference this year. We know that the conference is more than just a professional development opportunity – seeing each other face-to-face, provoking critical thought, and engaging in productive dialogue with our colleagues is an invaluable activity that is difficult to replicate virtually. At the One Water Summit in Austin, TX this past September, Pisces Foundation President David Beckman said something that resonated with us: “Relationships ARE infrastructure!” This statement is the crux of the work that we do.

To that end, we encourage you to stay connected with each other, and with us, over the coming weeks and months. We planned to use the conference hashtag #IowaWater2020 on Twitter and Facebook for the rest of the year in an effort to keep the conversation going. Now, we’ll use it as we introduce you to water scientists and practitioners, produce and promote virtual learning opportunities, and engage you in the water conversation all year long. We hope you will use it, too.

Our focus will remain on building a robust and connected water science community. We look forward to adapting and innovating during these challenging times.


Community Water Fluoridation: Nature’s Way to Fight Tooth Decay

By: Sara Carmichael Water Fluoridation Coordinator Iowa Department of Public Health

Tooth decay is the most common, chronic disease among children and the elderly. One in 5 people has untreated decay, also known as cavities,[1] which severely impacts social development, self-esteem, and overall quality of life.

But cavities are preventable! Besides practicing good oral hygiene like brushing twice a day for two minutes, flossing, and eating a healthy diet, an easy way to prevent cavities is by drinking optimally fluoridated water. The adjustment of fluoride levels in drinking water is called Community Water Fluoridation (CWF). Best of all, everyone benefits from water fluoridation, regardless of income, education, or place of residence. Fluoride is naturally present in all water sources, including surface water, groundwater, and pic 1oceans. Water fluoridation is the adjustment, up or down, of the natural fluoride to a recommended level of 0.7 mg/L to prevent tooth decay. The fluoride additives are produced from phosphorite rock, a type of limestone. The mechanism of production can be seen in the following diagram. All fluoride additives are thoroughly tested, regulated, and determined safe by the Environmental Protection Agency and independent organizations, including NSF International and Underwriters Laboratories.

Adding fluoride to water is managed by the local water operator to make sure the optimal amount is used. There are three additives for water fluoridation. The decision on which additive to use is based on cost, space, availability, and equipment. The three additives are

  • Fluorosilicic acid: a water-based solution used by most water systems in the United States.
  • Sodium fluorosilicate: a dry salt additive, dissolved into a solution before being added to the water.
  • Sodium fluoride: a dry salt additive, typically used in smaller water systems, and dissolved into a solution before being added to the water.

Currently, about 70% of Iowans have access to optimally fluoridated water. If you are on a community water system and want to know the level of fluoride, visit the CDC’s website, My Water’s Fluoride, at  https://nccd.cdc.gov/DOH_MWF.

Community water fluoridation is so effective at preventing decay that the Centers for pic 2Disease Control and Prevention named it one of 10 public health achievements of the 20th Century. Study after scientific study has shown that CWF reduces the amount of cavities seen in baby teeth by at least 35% and reduces decay in permanent teeth by at least 25%.[2] Over 100 national and international organizations support CWF, including the American Cancer Society, American Academy of Family Practice, and World Health Organization.

For more information, please contact Sara Carmichael, Water Fluoridation Coordinator at the Iowa Department of Public Health, at 515-204-3450 or sara.carmichael@idph.iowa.gov

[1] https://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/costofdelaywebpdf.pdf

[2] http://www.cochrane.org/CD010856/ORAL_water-fluoridation-prevent-tooth-decay


In a word: overwhelming.

Post written by Melissa Miller, Associate Director for the Iowa Water Center

As I reflect on the 2019 Iowa Water Conference, the first word that comes to mind is overwhelming.

Overwhelming numbers – of people attending, sponsors and exhibitors, and speakers.

Overwhelming breadth of topics and information presented.

Overwhelming energy, optimism, new ideas.

Overwhelming support from you, the Iowa water community.

This is the seventh Iowa Water Conference I’ve coordinated, and I have to say that this one took me by surprise. I felt differently going into it, knowing how much effort the conference planning committee put into developing a well-rounded program and knowing beforehand that we were expecting the biggest conference crowd in the 13 years of the Iowa Water Conference. What was surprising – overwhelming – was the feeling that our water community is more vibrant, more invigorated, more ready to act than ever.

What we’ve always known to be true – that all water has value and a systems approach to watershed management is the only way we will build a sustainable water future – has been neatly articulated by the US Water Alliance as the One Water Approach, presented by Radhika Fox. It’s messaging we can all use in our work to bring new partners on board and develop relationships that didn’t previously exist.

What we’ve faced repeatedly in our work – that we must engage the citizens in our watersheds, but that’s easier said than done – is receiving new life in the form of interactive exhibits and personal storytelling like We Are Water Minnesota; in the crazy, exciting, and realistic flood resiliency tournament used in the East and West Nishnabotna watersheds; in the message that the ideals of citizenship are perhaps even more important in our watershed communities. It’s a reminder that all communication starts with meeting someone where they are and valuing their personal, lived experience before trying to share your message.

What remains to be learned – there is new research, new methods, new discoveries happening constantly with water – is best discovered in a shared learning environment, making the conference more than just a place for information overload. It’s a place where we make and renew friendships and partnerships with those who are working toward the same goals as we are and processing that information together.

I really shouldn’t be surprised that bringing together 550 passionate, intelligent, diverse, and hardworking individuals would be overwhelming (even for me, the most extroverted of all extroverts). It’s just that there are so many highlights from this year’s conference – those mentioned above, and at least 100 others I could mention – that I don’t know yet how to top it next year.

I’ll leave you with an invitation – please share with us what would make this conference overwhelming (in a positive way) – every year. On April 17, we will gather in Ankeny to brainstorm and plan for 2020, and everything is on the table (venue, dates, branding, themes, speakers, logistics, etc.). If you want to be a part of that meeting, contact us. If you have suggestions for the conference, contact us. If you want to keep this energy going throughout the year and need some resources, contact us. Stay in touch – and we’ll see you in 2020.

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Melissa Miller is the associate director of the Iowa Water Center. She holds a BS in Kinesiology with an emphasis in Community and Public Health and MS degree in Community Development with an emphasis in Natural Resource Management, both from Iowa State University.


Iowa Water Center City Spotlight: Des Moines

By Joe Otto, Communications Specialist at the Iowa Water Center

The City Spotlight series highlights ongoing efforts by Iowans living in cities to address water issues impacting their neighborhoods.

Des Moines residents and officials working on watershed approach

The City of Des Moines is taking steps to improve emergency planning ahead of major flood events. In response to damaging floods in 2018, city officials formed a Flash Flood Committee to identify and study various flood-related emergency issues. The report was released in January of 2019 and can be viewed on the city’s website.

The flood event that triggered the report came in late June, when torrential rains fell across parts of the Raccoon and Des Moines River valleys upstream from the city. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning at 9:30pm on the night of June 30th. Over the next 24 hours Des Moines police dispatch answered nearly 1,700 calls and the fire department responded to over 150 calls for rescue or assistance. This heavy demand for services challenged the city’s public safety officials who in the report recommended more coordination across city departments and the possibility of issuing preemptive evacuation orders.

In addition to public safety, the report identified five areas where city officials and residents can better prepare themselves: communications before and during a flood, debris management and cleanup afterward, storm water infrastructure and capacity, insurance availability, and sustainable development and planning to lessen the damage of future floods.

From a communications standpoint the report recommends the creation of an emergency response plan that would be reviewed annually and spreading awareness through education and outreach during a “severe weather awareness week.” Other recommendations included the creation of an emergency communications website operated jointly by Polk County and the City of Des Moines, and encouraging neighborhood associations, residents, and businesses to form their own flood response plans.

The June floods generated over five million pounds of debris, which created logistical problems for public works and waste management officials. From a debris management standpoint, the report recommends establishing clear rules on curbside pickup of debris in the wake of a flood emergency, using GIS technology to map the most efficient routing for truck drivers picking up debris, designating areas in the city as debris drop-off sites, and distributing “bagster”-style cleanup bags to effected residents.

From an infrastructure standpoint, the report recommends changes to the city’s building permitting that would require new construction projects to meet environmental and stormwater mitigation standards that would be set by the City. Home and business owners are further encouraged to build their own stormwater management systems that include rain collection barrels, water gardens, and more grass cover. Public infrastructure is to be assessed for its capacity and augmented or replaced if needed. Costs to cover these changes would come from a 1% sales tax increase and a plan to set aside a higher percentage of property taxes and devote them to stormwater projects.

From an insurance standpoint the report recommends the city take steps to improve its Community Rating Score (CRS). Determined by FEMA, a city’s CRS is a valuation of how much effort it puts into flood protection and flood planning beyond the minimum standards set forth in the National Flood Insurance Program. Cities that exceed minimum standards are rewarded with lower scores, and consequently lower flood insurance rates. Des Moines currently has a CRS of 7, which translates to a 15% discount on federal flood insurance. The City of Cedar Falls, by comparison, has a CRS of 5 and qualifies for a 25% discount. Achieving a lower CRS score requires extensive, long-term planning of projects such as those outlined in the 2018 Flash Flood Report.

From a sustainability standpoint the report recommends a watershed approach to flood control and emergency planning. Such an approach would require public and private support from beyond the city limits of Des Moines, particularly among upstream communities. Possible routes of cooperation might include upstream communities participating in the FEMA CRS program, which qualifies them for federal funding for floodplain management planning. Of the six Iowa cities participating in the CRS program, the only city in the Des Moines/Racoon River watershed is Des Moines. Four are in the Iowa/Cedar watershed and one is along the Mississippi River. FEMA also allows counties to participate, of which there are three in Iowa that do: Linn, Story, and Pottawattamie; with Story being the only county that shares part of a watershed with the City of Des Moines.

Finding neighboring cities and counties in the watershed would go a long way towards better flood planning and preparedness during emergencies, which is the goal of a community group that contributed to the Flood Report. The sustainability portion of the Flood Report was written in consultation with the Des Moines Citizens Task Force for Sustainability. Established by the Office of the Des Moines City Manager, the Task Force was created as part of the city’s long-term strategic plan. The Task Force’s community contact, Carolyn Ulenhake Walker, would like to see more city resources devoted to long-term planning and flood resilience. When asked how she thought the city officials could move the needle on these issues, Ulenhake Walker recommended more attention be given to watershed planning; “Because we know extreme rain events are occurring more often, the taskforce thinks watershed projects need more attention and more money.” She was also supportive of looking for like-minded stakeholders outside of the city limits. The metro-adjacent cities of Ankeny and Clive are collaborating with Des Moines on watershed planning projects for the Walnut Creek and Four Mile Creek watersheds. Additional support is being provided by officials with Polk County’s Soil and Water Conservation office in Ankeny. Although these projects are still in the developmental stages, Ulenhake Walker is optimistic the watershed approach will be successful; “[We] would like city staff to really research this topic, as well as act upon the [watersheds approach] recommendation.”

des moines watershed map showing four mile and walnut creek watersheds

The author of the Flood Committee’s sustainability recommendations echoed the Task Force’s plea. Brian Campbell, Director of Sustainability Education at Simpson College, says that 2018 Flash Flood Report is an opportunity for the City of Des Moines to situate itself in broader conversations about sustainability and watershed planning; “Our hope would be that city leaders work to engage as broadly as possible – upstream and downstream, inside and outside Polk County.” Although a planning process involving multiple stakeholders can be painstakingly slow, Campbell is optimistic that the city can make quick progress by adopting models already in use elsewhere; “I’m not an expert in this area, but my sense is that something like the Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA) would be helpful to convene different stakeholders.” Both Campbell and Ulenhake Walker attended a fall 2018 meeting about the benefits of the IWA and incorporated their findings into the recommendations. The meeting was hosted by Des Moines-based engineering company RDG Design.

While the planning process slowly moves forward, the city has also taken short-term action. Homes in the areas hardest-hit by the June floods are being bought by the city. As of the end of 2018 the city has acquired 78 properties at a total cost of $10.5 million. Most of the properties lie along Four Mile Creek, on the city’s northeast side.

Residents interested in a watershed approach for Des Moines are encouraged to attend any regular meeting of the Citizen’s Taskforce on Sustainability. The group meets monthly, on the first and third Wednesdays, at 4:30pm. The meeting location is Ingersoll Park, at 4906 Ingersoll Ave. For more information contact Carolyn Ulenhake Walker at carolynruw@gmail.com.


Otto_Profile pictureJoe Otto is the Communications Specialist for the Iowa Water Center. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, where he is writing a dissertation on the history of drainage in Iowa.

Do you live in a city facing a pressing water management issue? Let the Iowa Water Center put a spotlight on it. Contact jwotto@iastate.edu for more information.

Works Cited

“2018 Flash Flood Report,” Des Moines City Council Workshop Reports. Accessed 1-9-2019. http://www.dmgov.org/Government/CityCouncil/WorkshopDocuments/20190107%20Flood%20Activity%20Report.pdf

Campbell, Brian. Director of Sustainability Education, Simpson College, personal communication, January 16, 2019.

City Manager, Office of.  “Sustainability Efforts.” City of Des Moines. Accessed January 24, 2019. https://www.dmgov.org/Departments/CityManager/Pages/SustainabilityEfforts.aspx

Daily Erosion Project. Iowa State University. Accessed January 24, 2019. https://dailyerosion.org/map/#20190124//qc_precip/-94.50/42.10/6//0/

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).“October 2017 NFIP Flood Insurance Manual, 20 CRS Section” FEMA.gov. Accessed 1-9-2019. https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1503240360683-30b35cc754f462fe2c15d857519a71ec/20_crs_508_oct2017.pdf

Iowa Watershed Approach, Accessed January 24, 2019. https://www.iowawatershedapproach.org/

Iowa Flood Information System. Iowa Flood Center, University of Iowa. Accessed January 24, 2019. http://ifis.iowafloodcenter.org/ifis/en/app/

Ulenhake Walker, Carolyn. Community Contact for Des Moines Citizens Task Force for Sustainability, personal communication, January 15, 2019.

U.S. News and World Report. “Des Moines Spends $10.5M to Buy 78 Flood-Damaged Homes.” Accessed January 15, 2019. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/iowa/articles/2019-01-11/des-moines-spends-105m-to-buy-78-flood-damaged-homes




Iowa Water Center City Spotlight: Cedar Rapids

By Joe Otto, Communications Specialist at the Iowa Water Center

The City Spotlight series highlights ongoing efforts by Iowans living in cities to address water issues impacting their neighborhoods.

 2019 will be a big year for flood control planning in downtown Cedar Rapids. The city’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year includes $35 to $40 million-dollars for flood protection – nearly double the amount of last year. With the 2020 fiscal year beginning on July 1 of this year, officials are actively exploring various options and drawing up plans. On top of the significant jump in local funding is an infusion of federal dollars amounting to $76 million in grants and $41 million in low-interest loans.

Already underway is the construction of a $14.2 million-dollar floodwall and pump station to protect the Quaker Oats factory, which sits downtown on the banks of the Cedar. This project was started during the previous fiscal year and is the largest and most expensive currently underway. Because rail access is crucial to the manufacturing facility, the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad will be realigned and outfitted with a floodgate. The railroad floodgate was partially funded by a grant from the Iowa Department of Transportation.

The city’s goal is to withstand another Flood of 2008. At the present, the city prepares for floods by setting up temporary defenses: movable barriers and portable pumping stations. The long-term vision is to integrate these defenses into a more permanent system. Additional pumps at existing pumping stations would reduce the city’s reliance on portable pumps, and enable city staff to focus on other tasks during times of emergency.

Future plans include large, rolling floodgates along major streets – similar to that constructed near Birdland Park and Guthrie Ave. in downtown Des Moines after the Floods of 1993.  A floodgate on 16th Ave where it spans the Cedar River would effectively link two sections of concrete wall on either side of the bridge. In the event of a flood, the gate would roll into place and seal up a vulnerable breach in the city’s flood defenses.

But the city is also committed to keeping the Cedar River connected to the downtown area. The 8th Avenue bridge is slated for replacement, which may also include pump stations, restrooms for the city’s outdoor amphitheater, a scenic overlook of the city’s riverscape, or possibly a vendor space for restaurants or shops. Upgrades to a recreational trail along the Sinclair Levee will include more benches and monuments honoring local historical figures. The city’s flood control manager, Rob Davis, has stated that the city intends to stick to its master plan, “which is not to wall us off from the river.” By incorporating economic and recreational development of the riverfront area into its flood protection planning, the city believes interaction with the Cedar River will remain a valuable attraction, despite the ongoing struggle to control its more uncontrollable elements.

Cedar Rapids has successfully directed state and federal funding streams into their downtown flood protection plans. Part of their success hinges on the city’s use of bonding and property taxes to raise matching funds from local sources – often a requirement for high-dollar, competitive grant programs. In 2018 the City Council approved a $264 million-dollar bonding plan, spread out over ten years, to raise the necessary local funds. The plan involves property tax raises of about 22 cents per year. As reported by the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the sale of these bonds will be subject to a future vote by the City Council.

Anyone interested in commenting on the planning process as it moves forward is encouraged to attend regular City Council meetings. The City Council also intends to gather public input by scheduling public hearings, which residents are also encouraged to attend. For more information contact the City Manager’s office at 319-286-5051 or email at citymanager@cedar-rapids.org.

Documentation of the city’s Stormwater Master Plan is available on the city’s website at http://www.cedar-rapids.org/local_government/departments_g_-_v/public_works/stormwater_master_plan.php#content

Otto_Profile picture


Joe Otto is the Communications Specialist for the Iowa Water Center. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, where he is writing a dissertation on the history of drainage in Iowa.



Do you live in a city facing a pressing water management issue? Let the Iowa Water Center put a spotlight on it. Contact jwotto@iastate.edu for more information.

Works Cited:

Cedar Rapids Gazette, January 5, 2019, “Cedar Rapids flood system takes leap forward in 2019: Now with federal aid, city doubles down on making progress.”

Accessed 1-8-2019. https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/government/cedar-rapids-flood-protection-government-funding-20190105


“Stormwater Master Plan,” City of Cedar Rapids. Accessed 1-8-2019. http://www.cedar-rapids.org/local_government/departments_g_-_v/public_works/stormwater_master_plan.php#content

The Untold Story of Iowa’s Ag Drainage System

Post originally appeared on Darcy Maulsby & Co blog by Darcy Maulsby

If there were a “Mysteries at the Museum” television series geared towards agriculture, this item would be ideal to lead in a segment. It’s hollow, it’s made of clay, it contains a message from the past, and it was buried in the ground for decades.

It’s a unique clay drainage tile dated 1885, and it’s on display in the Greene County Historical Society’s museum in Jefferson. The message carved around the exterior of the tile reads, “We the men who started the tile work did so with a motive to benefit the town and country. Signed T.P. LaRue of Scranton, Iowa.”

An interpretive sign by the tile shares a quote from S.J. Melson, a former Greene County engineer, to explain the curious item’s history. “This tile was placed into my hands by Carl Paup on February 1968. Mr. Paup stated the tile was unearthed and has lasted for many years on the property owned and operated by Harrison Paup of Kendrick Township, Greene County, Iowa.”

That tile reflects a major part of Iowa’s agricultural history that has been buried, literally, for generations, yet this history continues to influence farming methods, especially in the prairie pothole regions of north-central Iowa and northwest Iowa.

“In general, ag drainage in Iowa got its start around 1880, but this varied a lot, depending on the region,” said Joe Otto, a historian and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oklahoma who works as a communications specialist with the Iowa Water Center at Iowa State University.

The first documented case of a drain tile being installed in Iowa occurred in 1868 on the grounds of Iowa State in Ames, Otto added. Before that, some of the first drainage ditches were dug in the 1850s along the Mississippi River in Des Moines County, just upstream from Burlington, so farmers could help protect themselves from flooding. One of these farmers, John Williams, was later elected to the state legislature and helped get the state’s first drainage laws passed in the 1870s, Otto said.

Drainage affected Iowa’s settlement patterns
Ag drainage was such a major issue in the 1800s that it impacted Iowa’s settlement. “Iowa wasn’t settled east to west, but from the bottoms up to the top of the state’s many river valleys,” Otto said. “Atop the river valleys were the flat, glaciated prairies of north-central and northwestern Iowa. These were settled and farmed starting in the 1870s and 1880s – several decades after farming started along the Mississippi.”

Jim Andrew revisits the exhibit designed by his father, James H. Andrew, a long-time Greene County farmer. This Farm Drainage Tiling exhibit is housed at the Greene County Historical Society’s museum in Jefferson, Iowa.

The region’s extensive swamps and sloughs were remnants of the last glacier, which loosened its icy grip on Iowa approximately 12,000 years ago. “There was a lot of water and nowhere for it to go,” Otto said. “Drainage ditches had to be dug and tile lines had to be laid before the sloughs and swamps of Iowa could be farmed. This started around 1880 and picked up speed in the early 1900s as drainage technology became more advanced.”

Ag leaders like Civil War veteran and pioneer farmer Jesse Allee, who settled in the Newell area in 1871, knew ag drainage would be essential to the development and prosperity of the region. “He was far-seeing with the unshakable belief in the future of the community’s farm land,” stated the 1969 Newell centennial history book on display at the Allee Mansion south of Newell. “Jesse worked hard educating the public to the necessity of proper drainage if this area was to be a leader in agriculture.”

Settlers in Greene County faced a similar situation. “By 1880, many landowners realized underground drainage tile was needed to remove the excess water,” wrote James H. Andrew, a long-time Greene County farmer who created the Farm Drainage Tiling exhibit at the Greene County Historical Society’s museum in Jefferson before he passed away in 2014.

As more settlers moved into Iowa and demand for tile drainage grew, tile kilns and factories popped up across the state, Otto noted. Greene County, like many Iowa counties, had multiple firms manufacturing clay tile. These businesses used locally-sourced clay, including the Jefferson Cement Products Co., which was located just north of the Greene County Fairgrounds and operated until about 1930, and Lawton and Mass, which produced concrete tile at Cooper for a number of years, starting in 1895.

“There were also small machines made for farmers to mix concrete and scoop it into a manually-cranked device that used metal forms to make various sizes of tile,” wrote Andrew, who was known as “Mr. History.” “They advertised you could make your tile at home for half the cost of commercial tile. But it’s doubtful if this was very successful, since the proper steaming and curing of concrete tiles is important.”

Drainage districts take shape
Ag drainage in Iowa took a major leap forward in 1904, when state legislation provided for the formation of drainage districts. “Farmers could always drain their own lands if they wanted to, but to truly manage drained water meant cooperation with your neighbors,” Otto said.

A group of farmers could petition for a drainage district. An engineer would survey the land to establish the boundaries of the area, and a feasible drainage plan would be developed.

If approved, a contract would be drawn up, with the cost paid by assessing each landowner for his or her fair share, considering his needs and the acres involved. The county acted as the administrator of the drainage district and assessed taxes against the land, as needed, to pay for the initial cost and later for the maintenance of the drainage district. Many times, the money would be borrowed by issuing bonds, and the landowners would make payments on a 10-year plan, Andrew noted.

“The drainage district plan provided the larger tile needed for the main arteries of the system,” Andrew wrote. “Individual landowners were responsible for installing and paying for the lateral tile lines installed on their respective farms to complete the drainage plan.”

From 1904 to 1919, an average of 10 new drainage districts were created per year in Greene County. “That’s a new district about every five weeks,” Andrew wrote.

The 1910s became the golden age of ag drainage when most of Iowa’s public drainage systems were built, Otto added. “By 1912, Iowa’s farmers had spent more money on drainage then the U.S. government spent to build the Panama Canal.”

A Greene County drainage district created in 1916 to drain 998.7 acres using approximately 3.5 miles of tile ranging in size from 10 inches to 22 inches cost of $9,135, [more than $218,640 in today’s dollars], said Michelle Fields, drainage clerk for Greene County. “A drainage district created and installed in 2013 drained 865.5 acres using around 2.38 miles of tile ranging in size from 15 to 24 inches at a cost $532,500,” she added.

This unique clay ag drainage tile dated 1885 is on display in the Greene County Historical Society’s museum in Jefferson. The message carved around the exterior of the tile reads, “We the men who started the tile work did so with a motive to benefit the town and country. Signed T.P. LaRue of Scranton, Iowa.”

Recalling the life of a ditch digger

By 1920, the formation of ag drainage districts in Iowa slowed down as the post-World War 1 ag depression hit rural America. Still, the work continued.

“Steam power (and later gasoline) engines moved steel and iron machines that could move a lot more dirt around than could horse-drawn scrapers and plows,” Otto said.

Around 1923, after most Greene County drainage districts were in place, the first tiling machines started to be used, although hand digging continued for many years, Andrew noted. In the spring, summer and fall, men could find a job “in the ditch” if they wanted to work. “Many immigrants coming to the USA found their first jobs digging canals, and later drainage ditches. You didn’t have to know English to be a good man in the ditch,” added Andrew, who noted that many of these workers were from Sweden and Ireland.

The early tilers typically lived in tents or small, portable shacks next to the wet land they were draining. They often cooked their own meals and lived off the land by catching frogs for fried frogs’ legs and snapping turtles for turtle soup. They shot ducks, geese and rabbits for meat. Sometimes bullheads and other fish could be caught in the larger ponds, Andrew noted. For water, including drinking water, the men would take a post auger and dig a hole 3 to 4 feet deep and would set in an old farm pump.

“Ditch digging was well organized, and the men were paid by the rods of ditch dug by each man,” Andrew wrote. “No work—no pay. And of course, workmen’s compensation, health insurance and so on were unheard of.”

“Generous gifts”
By the 1970s, corrugated plastic pipe was introduced, which gradually phased out clay tile as the most efficient way to drain land. Today, Greene County has nearly 3,000 miles of drainage district tile and pipes, ranging from 4 inches to 48 inches in diameter. This distance would roughly equal a tile ditch spanning from New York to San Francisco.

“Note that the 3,000 miles is just a measure of the district tiles,” Fields said. “That number would be exponentially larger if you included private tile lines.”

As ag drainage issues have increasingly become intertwined with debates about conservation and water quality, it’s important to keep the line of communication open, Otto said.

“I think the harsh reaction against ag drainage that’s happened in the past few years is due in part to people suddenly wanting to engage in drainage matters, but unsure of what drainage is and does, who administers it and what powers they have. On the other side of the coin, the people trusted to manage the public’s interests in drainage have a responsibility to break down barriers, explain misconceptions and guide the conversation to a common ground.”

That’s a big reason why Andrew documented the history of ag tiling, counting it as one of the most important events in local history and the settlement of the region, noted his son, Jim Andrew of Jefferson.

“Think of the men and the effort it took to dig the clay, form and cure the tile, haul the tile to the jobsite, the survey crews working in ponds and swamps, the drainage plans made by the drainage engineer proving drainage was practical, the legal problems of objections and disputes, letting the bids, and, most important, the hundreds of men with strong backs who worked digging the ditches, laying the tile and filling the ditches,” wrote James H. Andrew.

“Yet, the tile is hidden underground, and the ‘Iron Men’ tilers are all deceased,” he concluded. “As time passes, there is little appreciation for the cooperative efforts that drained Greene County and made it so productive. Only when these old tile systems fail and have to be replaced at great expense will many people realize the generous gifts we’ve received from the drainage district system.”

Iowa Water Center City Spotlight: Mason City

By Joe Otto, Communications Specialist at the Iowa Water Center

The City Spotlight series highlights ongoing efforts by Iowans living in cities to address water issues impacting their neighborhoods.

Suburbanization in Iowa’s cities and towns has been well underway since the 1990s and beyond. Homeowners in the suburbs enjoy closer-knit neighborhoods and quieter streets, but recently residents in two subdivisions of Mason City took action to combat a lingering exposure to flooding that has recently become more problematic.

Following a wet summer of 2018, Mason City is exploring options to better combat flooding on its east side. Residents in the Asbury and Eastbrooke neighborhoods met to hear the City’s plans to help protect their homes from future flooding. Damaging floods during the summer of 2018 caused the City to explore upgrades to their storm water and drainage infrastructure that was unable to hold back the rising waters.


The two suburban neighborhoods are located right next to one another. Both are in the Winnebago River watershed, but only Asbury is right along the Winnebago River. Five hundred and ninety-seven square miles of land in the Winnebago river valley drains into the Asbury neighborhood, including Clear Lake and the upper course of the Winnebago, from Mason City, past Forest City and Fertile, to its source at Bear Lake in Minnesota (Iowa Flood Center). Eastbrooke, on the other hand, sits along a small branch of the Winnebago, Ideal Creek, that outlets into the river just downstream from the subdivision. The drainage area of the Ideal Creek watershed above Eastbrooke is 9.4 square miles, which spans northward as far as 305th Street in Cerro Gordo County (Iowa Flood Center). Although these watersheds are very different in size, they do share a common problem. When floodwaters threaten homeowners on the banks of the Winnebago, the river is too swollen to allow water from Ideal Creek to discharge. The result is that both neighborhoods experience flooded basements and overworked sump pumps.


Two plans are under consideration. The first is to build a new drain with sufficient capacity. The current one was built in the 1980s, before these neighborhoods existed. In the 1980s the lands in question were farmed and tiled with 16-inch drains, but when then subdivisions were formed in the 1990s the tile was abandoned and left in place. In response to complaints, in 2016 the City redirected some of the tile into a storm sewer and cleared the system of tree roots. The cost to replace the old system is about $300,000.

The second plan is for the property owners to petition their City government to form a drainage district. Under Iowa law, residents seeking relief from overflow on their lands can form a special taxing district that exists apart from the city’s general taxing structure. Property within the district is taxed to pay for new drainage systems. Option two would require close cooperation with the Cerro Gordo County Supervisors and the Mason City Council, as both have jurisdiction in drainage district matters. Other cities have followed this route, such as the City of Storm Lake in Buena Vista County. If homeowners explore this option they might consider reaching out to their neighbors to the west to learn more about the pros and cons of forming a drainage district. Another source of information is the City of Spirit Lake in Dickinson County, where a drainage district includes much of the city as well as neighboring agricultural land. Mason City officials have experience in drainage matters as well, as part of a Cerro Gordo County drainage district, No. 17, lies within the city limits on the west side. The outlet of the ditch is Chelsea Creek, just downstream from the Mason City Country Club. An area of 2 square miles drains into this district (Iowa Flood Center). This option is expected to cost at minimum $50,000 and would enable residents to more easily request and pay for future maintenance and repairs.

The problems faced by residents of Asbury and Eastbrooke show the unintended consequences of developing suburbs in flood-prone areas. Their efforts to work with local governments, both city and county, to solve these problems is laudable and may provide an example to other Iowans living in similarly-impacted areas.

City Officials commissioned the Mason City-based engineering firm of WHKS to perform the study. As first reported by KAAL-TV, the recent public meeting was held on December 5th and was part of the planning process.  City Officials are accepting public comments on this project and expect to issue a final report by the end of December. Readers interested in commenting or learning more about Mason City’s planning process should contact the Mason City engineer’s office at engr@masoncity.net or 641-421-3605. To learn more about the county’s management of a drainage district that includes lands within the limits of a city, contact the Cerro Gordo County Auditor’s office at webdrainage@cgcounty.org or 641-421-3064.

Joe Otto is the Communications Specialist for the Iowa Water Center. He is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, where he is writing a dissertation on the history of drainage in Iowa.

Do you live in a city facing a pressing water management issue? Let the Iowa Water Center put a spotlight on it. Contact jwotto@iastate.edu for more information.



Works Cited:

City of Mason City. Commissioner’s Report: Reclassification of Benefits, Drainage District No. 17. Accessed 12-10-2018. www.masoncity.net/files/documents/DDNo17CommissionersReport1191082749062617AM.pdf

City of Spirit Lake. Drainage District #22. Accessed 12-10-2018. https://www.cityofspiritlake.org/government/drainage-district-22/

City of Storm Lake. Drainage District Trustees. Accessed 12-10-2018. https://www.stormlake.org/463/Drainage-District-Trustees

Google Earth. Accessed 12-10-2018.

Iowa Flood Information System, Iowa Flood Center, University of Iowa. Accessed 12-10-2018. https://iowafloodcenter.org/

KAAL-TV Channel 6, Mason City, IA. “Mason City Residents Share Thoughts on Flood Mitigation Efforts,” Accessed 12-10-2018. https://www.kaaltv.com/news/mason-city-residents-share-thoughts-on-flood-mitigation-efforts/5169184/

What is the Iowa 4R Plus Program?

by Greg Wandrey, Iowa agriculture program director, The Nature Conservancy and 4R Plus program coordinator

The 4R Plus program is a science-based framework designed to increase awareness and provide information about 4R nutrient stewardship and conservation practices to crop advisers and farmers.  These 4R Plus practices can improve soil health, crop yields and water quality.


4R Plus combines the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship – applying the right source of fertilizer at the right rate and right time and in the right place – with the “Plus” conservation practices like cover crops, no-till and edge of field practices like saturated buffers and bioreactors.  These combined practices are needed to achieve the nitrogen and phosphorus loss goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  This strategy calls for a 45% reduction in total nitrogen and phosphorus loads going into Iowa waters, with 41% and 29% reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus loads, respectively, from non-point sources, such as agricultural production.

The 4R Plus program began in 2016 by bringing diverse organizations together to create an outreach campaign to help inform Iowa farmers about the suite of conservation practices available to them.  To date, more than 40 organizations have enlisted their support of the Iowa 4R Plus program, including agri-businesses, commodity groups, trade associations, government agencies, conservation organizations, Iowa State University and Iowa Learning Farms.

To kick off the project, market research was conducted with Iowa farmers and Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs) to help understand what practices they were using, key messages that resonated with them, barriers that hindered them from trying new practices and what their plans were for adopting new practices in the future.  The results showed that messages that resonated the strongest with farmers centered on 1) the role of healthy soil in addressing more extreme precipitation patterns, and 2) the importance of passing the farm to the next generation in better shape than they received it.  The market research also verified the importance of CCAs as the trusted adviser to farmers.

With the market research results in hand, 4R Plus coalition members developed 4R Plus informational resources that they could leverage with their internal and external stakeholders, including CCAs and farmers.  The resources include a 4R Plus brochure, 4R Plus Fact Sheet, a website (4rplus.org/), 4R Plus Blogs, an adviser module and a Twitter account (@4RPlus).  Most recently, a series of five videos were released that describe Conservation Practices, the 4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship and the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  In addition, the five videos were converted into courses for CCAs to take for Continuing Education Units (i.e. credits).  The CCA courses can be found at 4R Plus CCA Courses.

In addition to the 4R Plus resources mentioned above, the 4R Plus program has a communications and outreach component at the state level that includes radio, print and digital media.  In 2018, these media platforms are delivering 4R Plus messages to 85-90% of Iowa farmers.

The 4R Plus program is an exciting new effort to bring information about nutrient management and conservation practices to the Iowa farming community in a straight-forward and factual way.  The partners are committed to helping farmers implement practices that fit their unique individual operations and provide economic, agronomic, environmental and societal benefits on their farm and to their downstream neighbors.

If you are interested in learning more about 4R Plus or want to join the coalition of more than 40 agricultural and conservation organizations that support 4R Plus, please contact me at gregory.wandrey@tnc.org.


gregGreg is a native Iowan who grew up on a crop and livestock near Dyersville, Iowa.  He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in agronomy from Iowa State University and Ph.D. in agronomy and plant genetics from the University of Minnesota.  Greg joined the Iowa chapter of The Nature Conservancy in 2016 to lead the Iowa 4R Plus program.